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For the Harold Pinter connoisseur, the British playwright’s themes—distrust, betrayal, mistruth, the sparring between hunter and hunted—feature prominently in the double bill of “The Lover” and “The Collection,” now running at the Lansburgh Theatre. Director Michael Kahn’s stage revival of these TV one-acts from the 1960s glitters in the hands of capable actors who firmly grip the dynamic sexual power plays at the heart of these scripts.
The lesser work, “The Lover,” opens the evening. Richard (Patrick Kennedy), a suited and booted, cool-as-a-cucumber husband, merrily saunters off to work after a civilized chat about wife Sarah’s (Lisa Dwan) upcoming afternoon appointment with her lover. Any merriness is well merited— it turns out missus’ afternoon coitus is with her hubby, who shows up as a witty roleplaying chap donning a cap and leather jacket. Sarah’s sizzling afternoon with the teasing, testy Max, Richard’s alter ego—a bit of drum tapping, a bit of crawling, a bit of implied happy endings – had me scribbling a few quick back-of-my-hand notes for personal reference.
The afternoon trysts are a regular spice-up-your-life tonic for this couple. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Pinter’s career is shaped by protagonists clashing and bonding over women; here, Richard’s dual personalities —husband and lover—start jockeying as the couple’s happy arrangement crumbles, much to Sarah’s distress. Patrick Kennedy and Lisa Dwan are excellent sparring partners who cajole, seduce, and fight each other to respectively terminate or continue their role-playing arrangement. Kennedy is given the better lines, relaying an underlying edge both as the cuckold and cuckolder, while Dwan conveys desire, unhappiness, and intelligence in her battle to preserve their saucy arrangement. Over the course of an hour’s battle they renegotiate their relationship. The play is enthralling, with a quick wit and sharp dialogue, but it also slightly underwhelms. It’s a minor work that foreshadows Pinter’s later plays that better grapple with his major themes: conflict, menace, and distrust.
“The Collection” is a meatier piece focused on suspicion and jealousy. Patrick Kennedy and Lisa Dwan return as another ’60s couple, husband James and wife Stella, sharing the well-designed stage with a gay couple, the rich Harry (Jack Koenig) and the buff Bill (Patrick Ball). An aggrieved James urgently tries to confront Bill who, Stella claims, bedded her at a dress designers’ meet in Leeds.
As Bill prevaricates, denies, confirms, deflects, spins, mocks, questions, and parries, eddies of conflict and tension swirl under the small talk. “The Collection” never completely attains the atmosphere of menace that built up in the previous play, but it flows marvelously as different versions of the tryst in Leeds emerge. Soon James is standing over a splayed-out Bill and an undercurrent of sexual attraction tugs at the two men. Bill challenges the husband, “Pure fantasy. Really rather naughty of her. Rather alarming. Do you know her well?”
Probably not. Nobody can trust anybody and nobody can be trusted to tell the truth. We can neither trust Bill when he announces he will run for Parliament, nor do we fully believe Harry when he launches into the most powerful speech of the show, denouncing Bill’s lies: “He’s a slum slug. There’s nothing wrong with slum slugs in their place, but this one won’t keep his place.” This being a British play, the arsenic of class politics is perhaps inevitable.
In a fine turn on stage, Koenig showcases Harry’s entitlement as well as his flights of fantasy and jealousy over Bill and James’ connection. Harry’s and Bill’s live-in arrangement dates the play, but the coded conversations play well within the subtext of the dialogue. In a mirror-reversal of James’ visit, when Harry calls on Stella and establishes another version of the incident in Leeds, it is, inevitably, a version we can never verify.
The sex and power dynamics in “The Lover” and “The Collection” inevitably draw comparisons to 50 Shades of Grey for the casual pop culture observer. But while any 50 Shades shenanigans are ill-advised simply for being either too boring or idiotic, the mischief herein is ill-advised for being way too traumatic. Scrub your notes. Do not try this at home.
At the Lansburgh Theatre to Oct. 29. 450 7th Street NW. 202.547.1122.